“Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.”
– Susan Sontag on Tarr’s Satantango
“Tarr’s films sit astride a momentous event in history, the dissolution of the communist world, and document this moment in a way that only great art can.”
– Piers Handling
Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr is one of the most celebrated auteurs in world cinema. In October 2000, he brought his latest film Werckmeister Harmonies to the Cork Film Festival, where Fergus Daly and Maximilian Le Cain met up with him.
Tarr has the kind of reputation that only the best filmmakers tend to acquire – irascible, taciturn, a forbidding physical presence, like a Ford, a Huston, a Lang. None of this was in evidence in Cork where he spent the weekend mingling with the locals accompanied by his partner and editor Agnes Hranitzsky. Although Werckmeister Harmonies is Tarr’s seventh feature, it is with this film and his previous two [Damnation (’87) and Satantango (’94)] that his reputation has solidified. From an early concern with social problems allied to a verite-style aesthetic, Tarr has recently become preoccupied with more metaphysical problems such as the source of evil. In Tarr’s demonology the universe is out of joint, and his recent films raise the issue of man’s place in a wayward cosmos (his teaming up with novelist Laszlo Krasznahorkai has greatly assisted Tarr in this respect).
His style has changed accordingly and is now centred on the use of long takes and painstakingly choreographed sequence shots. His latest film contains only 39 shots during its 145 minute running time. Werckmeister Harmonies portrays a series of bizarre events in a timeless Hungarian village prey to a restless mob that has gathered in the square to await a sinister circus and its main attractions, a giant stuffed whale and a mysterious character known as “The Prince.” Chaos and brutal violence ensue.
In Tarr’s Satanic universe there is no place for a benevolent force such as God, merely a conflict of equally ill-conceived belief systems. In this the Hungarian would seem to share an outlook with other contemporary depictions of a world on the brink of catastrophe such as Carax’s Pola X. Such an existential terror has ensured that a “carceral principle” (in the words of Stephane Bouquet) has remained the key to Tarr’s intriguing cinematic world, even if, beyond the enclosed domestic spaces of his early features, it is now Time that holds us prisoner.
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FD & MLC: You’ve often said you wanted to be a philosopher. Do you think you’re doing philosophy cinematically?
BT: No. When I wanted to be a philosopher, I was sixteen and when I wanted to go to university, I was twenty. And they stopped me for a political reason, because we made an 8mm movie about a gypsy worker’s group in Hungary who had sent a letter to the boss of the communist party saying “Please, we would like relief from the country. We would like to go to Austria because we cannot live here anymore. We have no job, we have no food, we have nothing.” And it looks like a letter the Russian Mouzhik sent to the Tsar… And I made this movie about them when I was sixteen and afterwards applied to.
FD & MLC: Film school?
BT: No, to university. And I wanted to be a philosopher and they said immediately “No because what you do is incredible.” It was really an absolutely political reason. And afterwards I started another short film about a worker’s family in this squat house. And the police took the family away and were very brutal and aggressive and I wanted to shoot on 8mm and I couldn’t because the police took me to prison. And afterwards I applied for some money from the Béla Balász Studio which was a little independent film studio in Hungary. It was a group of young film makers and they had some money at that time just for experimental things. And I explained I would like to make a movie about the family, a worker’s family who squat in a house and finally they said “Okay, we will give you a little money and you can shoot for two days and afterwards we will watch what you did and if we like it, we will give more money to finish it, the whole movie.” That was my first movie. And afterwards I didn’t go back to the university and I didn’t apply anymore, I didn’t worry about philosophy. I am not a philosopher and I don’t want to be a philosopher in movies.
FD & MLC: So when critics describe your work as metaphysical, does that appeal to you?
BT: No, no, no. I never think about theoretical things when we are working.
FD & MLC: But there are cosmic themes in your films, and you’ve been quoted as saying that you’re “trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension.”
BT: You know how it happens, when we started we had a big social responsibility which I think still exists now. And back then I thought “Okay, we have some social problems in this political system – maybe we’ll just deal with the social question.” And afterwards when we made a second movie and a third we knew better that there are not only social problems. We have some ontological problems and now I think a whole pile of shit is coming from the cosmos. And there’s the reason. You know how we open out step by step, film by film. It’s very difficult to speak about the metaphysical and that. No. It’s just always listening to life. And we are thinking about what is happening around us.
FD & MLC: What do you think this shit is that’s coming from the cosmos?
BT: I just think about the quality of human life and when I say ‘shit’ I think I’m very close to it.
FD & MLC: But in terms of the cosmos, how does that fit in? If man is responsible for the shit, how does the cosmos come into it?
BT: Everything is much bigger than us. I think the human is just a little part of the cosmos.
FD & MLC: If there’s evil going on, do you think it comes from elsewhere? From outside the human sphere?
BT: No. I think human responsibility is great, enormous. Maybe the biggest factor. You know, I don’t believe in God. This is my problem. If I think about God, okay, he has a responsibility for the whole thing, but I don’t know. You know, if you listen to any Mass, it looks like two dogs when they are starting to fight. And always, I just try to think about what is happening now.
FD & MLC: So the main character in the film who’s saying “God created a beautiful thing in this whale”, whose view is that?
BT: No, he believes.
FD & MLC: Believes in God?
BT: No. He believes this is a big thing, bigger than humanity. And in this case he says “Maybe.” Maybe God still exists, that’s all. He just says everything is wonderful. God creates this big whale.
FD & MLC: Could you briefly describe the passage of Werckmeister Harmonies from Krasznahorkai’s novel The Melancholy Of Resistance to the screen?
BT: The novel was written by our friend Laszlo Krasznahorkai with whom we’ve worked for more than twelve years. We met with him after we read his book Satantango. It was his first novel. We read his manuscript and we decided immediately we would like to make this Satantango. It was ’85. At that time we wanted to make Satantango, but we couldn’t do it because there were political problems and we had a studio where some film makers worked together and it was very independent – but it was closed by the Hungarian government. It was the end of ’85. And afterwards there was no chance of us working in Hungary anymore. So we couldn’t do Satantango but we found a small publicity studio which just made some commercials. And we said we would like to make a small movie, not one as long as Satantango. And we called our writer and said “Now Satantango is gone, we can’t do it but we have another idea about a girl who is in this bar and some dirty things happen – please come and work with us again. But not on your story, on our idea.” And that became Damnation, which we did in the small publicity studio and which was a big success. Then we left Hungary for Berlin and we lived in West Berlin and then the Wall came down. Somebody invited us back to Hungary and we said “Okay, we’ll go back to Hungary if the new Hungarian government gives us money to do Satantango. And ten years after we first thought of it we finally did Satantango. And afterwards we found another writer and during this time Laszlo wrote his second novel, The Melancholy Of Resistance. And we read this book and liked it very much, but we said to him “we definitely don’t want to make a movie of this novel!”. And several years later we met our main character in Berlin. His name is Lars Rudolph and when we met him we decided immediately “we have a Valushka now” and we called our writer and we said “Okay, let’s go ahead because we found the perfect guy to play Valushka and we would like to make a movie about him. And we would like to use your novel”. But the movie is different from the novel and that’s the reason why the movie has a different title.
FD & MLC: How much actual writing do you do yourself?
BT: The script was very quick. I think it took two weeks or something like that. You know, we never use the script.
FD & MLC: Do you use storyboards?
BT: No. Storyboards are stupid, stupid things. No, we never use the script. We just write it for the foundations and the producers and we use it when looking for the money. The pre-production is a very simple thing. It takes always a minimum of one year. We spend a year looking all around and we see everything. We have a story but I think the story is only a little part of the whole movie. I have to tell you I absolutely hate the movies that I can watch at the theatres. They are like comics. They always tell the same stories. We don’t like these stories because for us every story is always the same old story from the Old Testament. After the Old Testament we have no new stories. We have no news. If you want some news you can watch it on the TV or read it in the newspaper. But movie stories are not new and that’s the reason why we think “okay, the story’s only a part of the movie because the other things, time, rhythm, noises and.”
FD & MLC: Music?
BT: Music, of course. And we are just trying to find something like a complex or total movie which isn’t only the story. And that’s the reason why we look for the locations, and why we spend so much time location hunting because we have some main characters but the location must be the other main character as must Time.
FD & MLC: So will you sometimes find a space and build scenes around it?
BT: We take a lot of impressions. In this case we had nowhere, we had some actors and we didn’t start the script before looking for locations. I need some impression from the locations. And afterwards I need some impression from the music which is composed before we start work. And when every element is ready, then we will write the final script. Because in this case we know everything. That’s the reason why we don’t use the script, because we know everything. We know the locations. Maybe some things change during shooting, of course, because some financial problems arise or some practical problems, or sometimes it turns out to have been too idealistic-that can happen. But I really don’t know before the shooting what we can do. We always have theories. And we have a construction. The actors will come from here and go there and afterwards leave there. And we have theoretical camera movements. And, okay, we have planned but when the actor moves in reality, we see immediately that it’s wrong – Agnes watches everything on the monitor as I do – and we see immediately that we have to change everything.
FD & MLC: How do you decide how long to hold a shot for? For instance the helicopter shot.
BT: If you feel the whole rhythm of the movie, then you know. Maybe we have two months break after shooting. But if you know what you want, you always feel the whole movie.
FD & MLC: As you’re doing it?
BT: Yeah. We watch the picture and Agnes says several times “A bit faster” or “A bit longer” and often she decides the length. You know the final cut took just half a day!
FD & MLC: How do you relate to the history of Hungarian cinema? Do you feel you come out of any tradition?
BT: Maybe Miklos Jansco. When I was young I watched some of his early movies and I liked them then very much. But I think what he does is absolutely different from what we do. But it’s true, we like his movies very much and he’s a nice man. But I think there is no direct connection between our films.
FD & MLC: What about Hungarian culture in general? Do you think they’re very much Hungarian films?
BT: I think we are real Hungarians and we don’t want to make different kinds of movies, but really I don’t know. We never talk about that. I think we are real Hungarians because we don’t follow international standards. But we are not a real part of the Hungarian film industry either, because we are a bit on the outside.
FD & MLC: Thematically, your films’ depiction of a world on the brink of catastrophe seems to link up with a lot of other films made lately, Pola X for example.
BT: I’m sorry, in the past four years I haven’t seen anything.
FD & MLC: Yes, I know.
BT: I just wanted to tell you I know nothing.
FD & MLC: I know, but I just think there is a trend in world cinema towards this sort of existential terror and chaos.
BT: No, I just wanted to make a movie about this guy who is walking up and down the village and has seen this whale. And, you know when we are working we don’t talk about any theoretical things. We only ever have practical problems. And it’s the same with the writer. Mostly we just talk about life. How it’s going on the street. We never talk about theoretical things. We never talk about Chaos or existential things. We just talk about someone coming into the room and he wants something and the other guy who is sitting there doesn’t want these things. That’s all.
FD & MLC: Those ideas are in the film though, and you’ve been quoted as saying that you’re “trying to look at things from a cosmic dimension.” Like the ransacking of the hospital, which is surely presenting an image of humanity that’s pretty barbaric.
BT: That was our imaginative vision of the state of things but we don’t want to give any definition.
FD & MLC: You don’t want to preach any morality or anything?
BT: No. No.
FD & MLC: What’s your interpretation of the Prince character? What does he signify?
BT: I don’t know. I haven’t seen him. I have only seen his shadow. That’s all, what you too have seen. The same. You know, I don’t like to explain anything about the story. You have seen it half an hour ago.
FD & MLC: Satantango is structured like a tango, in twelve parts. Werckmeister Harmonies features a lot of music too – was there any similar underlying idea?
BT: You know the structure of Satantango came from the novel. We held on to the structure. We didn’t change the novel. And the writer wrote twelve chapters, six forward and six back which is the structure of the tango. The music is also important in this case. We have a composer and we’ve worked with him for more than fifteen years. And he is a good friend of ours and I always ask him “Please create something” before we start shooting. And he just goes into the studio and writes some music. And, you know, in this movie we used only two themes and we used them during the shooting. Like a main character, the music’s always present.
FD & MLC: Some of the tracking shots are among the most complex I’ve ever seen. Were they achieved using a steadycam or.
BT: It depends on the ground. I prefer tracks, but if you can’t use the tracks, then you must use the steadycam.
FD & MLC: There’s one very long tracking shot of the hero and the musician walking along the pavement, with a bit of dialogue at the start and finish but mostly silent, which is very impressive.
BT: It was on tracks.150 metres long.
FD & MLC: The use of wind in it was wonderful.
BT: We used the wind machine. You know, everything is artificial. It’s the definition of artificial.
FD & MLC: When people like Susan Sontag praise your films as being among the finest of the past ten or fifteen years, how does that make you feel?
BT: It’s important. I must tell you it’s important. You know, because when we are working we are absolutely alone. We are fighting about money, we are fighting about this and that, and the shooting is always full of problems. You must find some solutions in order to finish the day’s shooting, and a lot of things are happening. When you are working, you can’t think about the audience. You have no chance because you have no time, you have no chance to think about the people who will watch the movie. But, you know, it’s sometimes the most important thing. That’s why you need somebody.
FD & MLC: To plead your cause?
BT: Whose opinion is important. We have maybe ten people around the world and it’s important to show them this movie. We say “please watch this and tell us your opinion.” We can’t imagine the audience because the audience is too big. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people and everybody has a different cultural background, everybody has a different social background. But everybody has a soul and everybody has emotions and we can touch everybody but we cannot say “Okay, we will do this movie for the whole audience” because we don’t know them. But we know ten nice people and their opinion’s very important and I think one of the best is Susan because she has seen everything we’ve done, and she likes the films and, you know, for us it’s important what she says. But there are other important people too…
FD & MLC: How do your films go down in Hungary? Do they get large audiences? Have you won awards?
BT: Our Hungarian reputation? It’s okay. They like us. I’m a well known film maker. We’ve won some prizes but, you know, it’s always very strange when it happens. Officially no-one likes us. We are outside of the standard culture. A lot of the time during the communist regime we thought “Okay, we have a problem with the politics” but now our situation is the same. We are outside of the official system and we are out of this stupid little bourgeois shit film industry.
FD & MLC: Somewhere you mentioned Pieter Breughel as an influence. [a 16th Century Flemish artist. Ed.]
BT: We like him very much. We have seen nearly all of his paintings. If we have a chance we always go to see them.
FD & MLC: Are there any other painters that you think have influenced you?
BT: Painters? No. Breughel is a big influence and some early Bosch is also quite a big influence. But we also very much admire some regional artists but I am not very good with names.
FD & MLC: Tarkovsky mentions Breughel a lot. In Mirror he recreates one of the paintings. Do you think he was an influence on you?
BT: No. There is no direct connection. I like some of Tarkovsky’s movies very much. But not all of them. I don’t like what he did out of Russia. For us I think Rublyov was the best. One of the best. And Stalker.
FD & MLC: You frequently work in black and white. Why do you prefer that?
BT: It’s very simple. If you want to make a colour movie, and you go out onto the street, and you want to create the right atmosphere, you must paint the whole street, because every house is red, blue, green and so on. And you have no colours, you just have some colour chaos. For me it’s a kind of naturalism, the colour movie. With black and white you can keep it more stylistic, you can keep more of a distance between the film and reality which is important.
FD & MLC: How many colour films have you made?
BT: We’ve done four things in colour. One was our second movie and then our fourth movie. It’s called Almanac of Fall and we shot every scene in a house. It was a closed house story.
FD & MLC: So you controlled all the colours of the sets and everything?
BT: Yeah, absolutely. We used colour lamps and everything was very artificial. Closed in houses, closed in situation. But when we go outside, I don’t like to use colours.
FD & MLC: But I’ve read that Cassavetes was a big influence on your earlier movies and visually he’s very naturalistic.
BT: Yeah, you know there wasn’t a direct connection but I like it very much. I think it was the idea of Jonathan Rosenbaum. This is his mania. No, we had no direct connection. I like Cassavetes’ movies very much. You know, when I made my first movie, what could be seen on at the movies was shit, full of lying. And that was the reason why we decided “Okay, we will shoot on 16mm, in black and white and with non- professional actors, real people, real proletarians, without dialogue, just some improvisation, we’d just go ahead and show what is happening on the street.” And afterwards I saw some Cassavetes movies and it was wonderful for me. Yes, I like what he did very much. But I never thought about his work when we made our next steps. But I think he was one of the most important American film makers for us…
FD & MLC: What do you think of Angelopoulos with whom you’ve often been linked by critics?
BT: It’s also strange. We only saw our first Angelopoulos film about five years ago. I don’t know why. We just always missed the chance to watch them. We knew about them and we heard his name and we know everything but didn’t see anything!
FD & MLC: What you’ve said about your working methods reminds me of what I’ve read about the way he works.
BT: I don’t know how he works. We have seen only two or three of his movies. And I very much like this movie which is about this theatre group. Travelling Players. I like it very much because there is this very simple camera movement from there to there (gestures) always ninety degrees. I think it’s a very good movie. The others, for us are a little bit.but we have seen only a few of his movies. I think we have no right to say anything about him.
FD & MLC: Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?
BT: We have a new project. The script is ready.
FD & MLC: Is it by Laszlo Krasznahorkai too?
BT: No, it’s strange. Do you know Georges Simenon? After the New York Film Festival one American producer called us. He wants to work with us. And he sent us a script which is full of shit and we said no, no, no. And afterwards he had another idea which we also said no to. And finally we proposed to him this short story by Simenon. The title is L’homme De Londres (The Man from London). And now we are working on this project. The script is ready. And this American producer founded this European company in Denmark and he moved from New York to Copenhagen. And we will start this project now which I hope we can complete.
FD & MLC: We hope so too. Thank you very much.